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Editorial: Wrong road taken in Brown Deer

Brown Deer will soon find out the cost of overestimating the public’s trust in government.

A year and a half ago, the village took a short cut. It tried to take land from people without giving them a voice in the process.

The village misjudged how people react to government’s cold calculations.

Brown Deer was preparing for a $2.3 million improvement project on several neighborhood streets when a surveyor discovered the village didn’t own the roads and rights of way.

The 51 property owners along those streets owned the land all the way to the middle of the roads. The road surfaces weren’t a problem because the village had maintained them long enough to establish them as public highways.

But project plans required taking land adjacent to the roads, land that property owners had maintained. Village leaders had to decide if they would simply take the land for a small price or enter into 51 cumbersome eminent domain cases.

So Brown Deer did what clumsy government does: It analyzed and then barged forward without considering constituents’ reactions.

The village figured the land along the roads had little to no value because zoning does not allow people to build there. The village then assumed people would accept $100 for every 1/20 of an acre taken.

Thirty-nine people accepted. Twelve didn’t.

Those 12 want the village to use eminent domain. They argue their land is worth more than what amounts to a night out on the town, and they’re willing to take the chance that an eminent domain payout will trump what the village is offering.

And they’ve won the right to let a jury decide if the village should use eminent domain.

Brown Deer officials now have an opportunity to reconsider a rash decision.

The eminent domain process could have cost thousands of dollars and taken years to finalize. It would have forced the village to pay for as many as two appraisals for each property and to enter mediation for every dispute.

It would have been a headache. It would have delayed the project. But it would have given people the satisfaction that government treated them fairly.

Now, the village is mired in a lawsuit. The project is delayed. And if a jury sides with those 12 people, the other 39 could sue to force the village to use eminent domain to take their land.

Brown Deer probably was dead-on in its assessment of the land. But it was dead wrong in its assessment of how the landowners would react.

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